Was this an accident, the sort of thing that happens to ancient cities which were often jerry-built and overcrowded? Or was there a public intent?
The area destroyed was the district of Pallacinae, which underlies the Forum of Trajan. Once it had been an elite district on the edge of the city. A chunk of it had once been the suburban villa of Sextus Roscius, who many will remember was the client of Cicero in the famous murder trial Pro Roscio Amerino in 80BC. Roscius was accused of murdering his father (who had the same name), but the case was trumped up so that the dictator Sulla could seize his estate. Although Cicero won his case, which made his reputation, the Roman government never returned Roscius’ land. The estate of Roscius was close to an ancient set of baths, the Balneal Pallacinae, a place which prostitutes often gathered, according to the very much later Liber Pontificalis.
In 38BC, the ally of Augustus, Asininus Pollio, acquired the authority to rebuild the district of Pallacinae. He use the proceeds of looting Illyria in the civil wars to demonstrate his power and authority. He built houses, flats, shops, two libraries, one Latin, one Greek, and most importantly of all the Atrium Libertatis, the hall of liberty.
This was where the Censor’s office moved to, probably because the previous offices had been damaged in the civil wars. Besides the official census, the lustrum, the Censor was responsible for two important functions of the state. The first was the registration of the manumission of slaves. Official diplomas were issued to manumitted slaves, not least to enrol them as citizens, and prevent any attempt to enslave them by prior owners. As citizens, of course, they were liable for taxes.
The other function of the Censor was to issue tickets which entered the holder into the annona, the dole, originally of corn, which would then be collected from an office in the Forum Boarium, which is close to the Aventine Hill, which had the temple of Ceres, close to the location of large grain stores (horrea) and the mills which produced much of Rome’s flour, themselves close to the wharves where imported grain was unloaded.
Augustus abolished the ancient post of Censor and took the administration of the annona in house. This doesn’t mean of course that the Atrium Libertatis ceased to run things; the dole was handled by a praefectus annonae and his deputy. Since the prefect was a largely honorific position and indeed a political one, the regular staff would have been left to their own devices, and probably used the existing offices. The marble pan of Rome shows an Atrium Libertatis as the southern wing of Trajan’s Basilica Ulpia.
|Plan of Basilica Ulpia with Atrium Libertatis marked|
In AD104, the area seems to have been consumed by fire. Was this an accident? Trajan may have had a role in this. It was his custom to change his consuls very frequently, and in every year apart from 104, there were about five holders of the consul prior and four or five consules posterior. Not in 104, when one man held each consulship for the entire year. In that year, one of the consuls was Marcus Asininus Marcellus, the great grandson of the same man who had rebuilt Pallacinae in 38BC.
Historians don’t like coincidences, and it’s too much of a coincidence that a Pollio built the quarter of Pallacinae and his descendent happened to be consul when it burnt down. I think that Trajan wanted the old quarter razed, and had Pollio made consul posterior, the first Pollio in 150 years to be raised to the consulship, to buy his approval.
Why did Trajan arrange for the vicus of Pallacinae to be destroyed? It was nearly 150 years old and had survived the Neronian fire and the urbanisation of the entire city area. The Domus Aurea had already encroached on the district, and needed to be expunged. My speculation is that Trajan and his architect Apollodorus of Damascus wanted an ambitious new district to emerge, one fired by the admiration that Trajan clearly had for all things Syrian. He had largely grown up there as his father was the governor of Syria, and as a young man Trajan had commanded troops as a military tribune there.
My guess is that while the fire was severe and may have been more widespread than intended, it was set by the imperial authorities with intent to remove it and permit for the last time an emperor to make his mark on the city’s infrastructure.
Apollodorus was an experienced architect, and had worked for Domitian, but had continued under Nerva and Trajan, including his bridge across the Danube to further Trajan’s Dacian campaign. He seems to have designed the entire precinct, including the Baths of Trajan, the Forum of Trajan, the Market of Trajan, the Column of Trajan, the two libraries and the Basilica Ulpia.
|The Markets of Trajan|
There is a story in Cassius Dio (Book 46) that once when Hadrian, who fancied himself as a bit of designer too, came to Trajan while he was in a meeting with Apollodorus with his latest designs and the latter told him to take his ‘pumpkins’ and go away. These would be orientally influenced domes and the like. The result might well have been like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, build for the Prince Regent in Mughal style by the English seaside. Hadrian remembered the slight and later, when emperor, had Apollodorus executed.
|Royal Pavilion Brighton, built for the Prince Regent, Later King George IV|
The builders were quite probably the Haterii, Rome’s top master building firm. They had already constructed a temple for Domitian in Rome, possibly the Temple of Isis and Serapis, both Hellenistic deities. You can see in this picture the barley-sugar twists of the columns, ideas that would find full expression on the Column of Trajan some thirty years later.
|Tomb of the Haterii, Rome's master builders, now in the Vatican Museum|
The unusual thing about the Column of Trajan was that the emperor was buried at the foot of the temple, although the room in the base was looted centuries ago and his ashes lost. Unusual, in that he was the only one to be buried within the sacred boundary, the pomerium, which was otherwise banned on grounds of hygiene. Of course, as Rome expanded, so did the pomerium, so there must have been ancient burials placed outside the limit of its day, but which later fell within it.
|The Column of Trajan, now topped with a renaissance statue of St Michael|
Not only was Trajan the late emperor, he had died on his way back from Antioch in Syria and been burnt at Tarsus, so he was hardly a health risk. The burial is reported by Cassius Dio, Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, and therefore probably featured in the official (but now lost) history of Rome, known as KG (for Kaisergeschichte)
Apollodorus fell out of favour with Hadrian soon after the death of Trajan. He was exiled and then executed. While Dio put this down to the revenge of Hadrian to an earlier slight, as mentioned above, there is a possibility of fraud. After Apollodorus, all bricks used in the construction of public works at Rome in Hadrian’s reign carried a stamp with the names of the current consuls, so that they could be dated. The suspicion could therefore be that the imperial treasury was being billed for the same goods on multiple occasions, and someone – Apollodorus perhaps – was pocketing the proceeds of it.
Many will remember the Third Satire of Juvenal, in which Umbricius, the shadow man, speaks to Romans listening in the street around his house why he’s leaving the city. You’ll probably remember that ‘I cannot abide, Quirites, a Greek-struck Rome (Graecam urbem, in the Accusative). Juvenal makes it clear that it’s not classical Greece he hates, but one dominated by Syrians.
For Umbricius, it’s the Orontes, the river which flows from Apollodorus’ home city of Damascus to Trajan’s favoured city of Antioch. which is dropping its dregs into the Tiber. The poem is dated to Trajan’s reign. Syria had been associated with popular culture already, with the aphorist Publius Syrus leading the way.
In fact, there had been a rising influence from Syria upon the Roman World. From the Roman invasion of 168BC to support the revolt of the Jews against their Hellenised Syrian overlords, who wanted to turn the Temple at Jerusalem into one dedicated to Zeus. This revolt, famously led by the Maccabee brothers and reported in the Hebrew Book of Maccabees, was an excellent pretext for Rome to engage with a weaker state within the Hellenistic east. The battles against Mithridates of Pontus would later show Rome was potentially weaker. The conquest of Syria led to the annexation of the Kingdom of Pergamum in 133BC (creating instability, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and ultimately the collapse of the Republic).
By contrast, the second century AD is one is rising Syrian influence in the Empire, which is why it had upset Juvenal through his mouthpiece Umbricius, as he lists a catalogue of Syrian things he objects to.
However, this was the century in which Apuleius, the Syrian writer Lucan and other Hellenistic writers of the Second Sophistic thrived, in which the Syrian Empress Julia Domna ran a dazzling literary salon, and ended, with a bang in the first quarter of the third century with the emperor Elagabalus.